Friday, March 01, 2013

The MIA Myth

MIA / POW Flag

More than 20 years ago many in America believed with utter sincerity that there were hundreds or indeed thousands of American POWs being held in Vietnam. This myth affected US foreign policy and became a staple of American popular culture.

The fact that the myth was and remains almost totally bogus.

In Vietnam the American’s suffered 2,255 unaccounted for; of those 1,095 were known to be dead but the bodies were not recovered. Leaving 1,160 has listed as possible POWs / MIA.1 To put this into perspective 8,177 are MIA from the Korean War, and 78,750 from the Second World War. To further put it into perspective c. 15% of the American dead of the Korean War are MIA; c. 19.4% of the American dead of the Second World War are MIA. In Vietnam c. 4% of the American dead are MIA. On top of that c. 81% were Airmen lost over oceans, mountains and rain forest, which would largely explain why the bodies were hard to find.2 Other figures given for POWs / MIA are not much different for example another figure is 2,583.3

Given the above just why would anyone rationally think that Vietnam was holding thousands of Americans as POWs after 1973?

The reasons are pretty obvious. First the American culture of anti-Communism accepts / accepted as a given that Communists will do inexplicably wicked things because they are Communists. Secondly the fact is the American government deliberately pursued as a policy a requirement from the Vietnamese that they find those MIA and that “solving” the MIA “problem” was required in order to improve relations with Vietnam in the wake of the war. Frankly also a lot of it was an effort to punish Vietnam for defeating the Americans. The idea that it was motivated by “humanitarian” concern of the American government is of course ludicrous. That the Vietnamese might be less than eager to devote resources to finding the missing bodies of their former enemies was regarded as a horrible, horrible act.

Of course the American government totally ignored the fact and it was and remains a fact that the total no. of Vietnamese MIA numbers c. 300,000.4 But then those are Vietnamese dead and so of course do not count.

That the US government quite deliberately by its policies regarding MIA’s deliberately fostered among the American population a belief that any but a tiny percentage of these MIA’s might still be alive is quite clear. So it should not be surprising that millions of Americans began to believe that the Vietnamese were holding hundreds if not thousands of Americans prisoner after the war.

What is amusing in a truly sick way was how after giving out the false hope that substantial numbers of MIA were alive and prisoners in Vietnam, the American government became the target of widespread conspiracy thinking that that they were concealing evidence of American POW’s in Vietnam after the war. The irony of this is almost funny.5

Currently it appears that there are 1,655, (c. 900 remains being found in the meantime.), missing of which 470 were lost in North Vietnam, 810 in South Vietnam, 314 in Laos, 54 in Cambodia and 7 over Chinese territorial waters. Of those 468 are over the ocean / water losses.6

Given that the number of Americans actually MIA is very small. It is unlikely in the extreme that there are any but very tiny numbers of Americans unaccounted for who are still alive in Southeast Asia.

Aside from the standard Vietnamese are Communists and Communists do terrible things because their Communists explanation various reasons have been given for the Vietnamese holding on to POWs after the war. The reasons given need not detain us except to note that they ignore that if the Vietnamese had reason to hold POWs after the war, why do they not say that they are holding them? That would seem to defeat the purpose of holding them.7

During the heyday of the myth, (1991), we got some fraudulent “evidence” including a patently obviously forged document. Supposedly it was a report to the Hanoi Politburo dated September 15 1972. Supposedly a Russian translation was found in Moscow. Much of the media leapt on the “discovery” and accepted it. The document was a crude forgery. AS indicated by the fact that the alleged author did not hold the rank the document gave him until 1974. Further the document claimed that Hanoi had told the Americans that they were holding 368 prisoners in fact in August 1972 North Vietnam said it was holding 383. The document claims that North Vietnam was holding 1,205 prisoners and that after the American Son Tay raid, (1970); the Vietnamese dispersed the Americans from 4 prisons to 11. In actual fact the North Vietnamese because of the raid concentrated the Americans from 13 prisons to 6. The document refers to the Americans has prisoners of war, something which throughout the war the North Vietnamese and Vietcong refused to do. They preferred “captured American Military personal”. To cap it off the document has American servicemen segregated by rank which was never done.

All in all a very clumsy inept forgery. What is remarkable was how at the time so many in the media and outside accepted it without question.8    

From its heyday in the late 1980’s, early 1990’s the belief in POWs in Southeast Asia has declined and so has its effects on the culture but it still persists in some quarters and then as now it was and remains groundless.

Of course the actual story about how the American government used the whole MIA issue to in effect punish Vietnam by basically demanding that Vietnam somehow find the remains of each and every MIA including those lost over the sea is a matter ripe for investigation but I suspect will be largely ignored.

Culturally the effect of the MIA myth of POWs in postwar Vietnam has been potent with books, comics, movies and assorted peoples being involved in looking for bogus POWs.9

Thus we get Rambo II10 which was straight cold war POW myth making. It included every trope of America being betrayed, fighting with one hand tied behind its back and of course evil Commie hordes that die by the hundreds like the sub-human scum they are. In other words it is propaganda and rather cheesy propaganda at that.

In all of this can be seen a desire to re-fight the Vietnam war and this time win it.

In fact the entire cultural focus of the MIA / POW myth was basically a desire to re-fight the war and then win it. Thus the whole realm of films/ books in which intrepid American soldier(s), mercenaries, etc., defeat the Vietnamese and those namby-pamby politicians, bureaucrats who “betrayed” America in Vietnam. Thus we get Rambo saying “Are we allowed to win this time?”11

That this myth still has myth still has public appeal is revealed in an episode of American Chopper a few years ago when the chopper makers made a MIA motorcycle complete with the MIA flag on it.12  

In effect the whole MIA myth was the result of losing the war. Other wars that America fought, America won or at least fought to a draw in this particular case defeat was clear cut. The resulting frustration among American politicians was reflected in the frustration of the American public and both in their own individual ways tried to “explain” the loss and then try to extract a sort of “victory” from the mess. Thus an American public blaming foolishness and supposed “weak-will” in Washington for the loss of the war was primed to believe that “Washington” could deliberately cover up the existence of actual POWs in Southeast Asia post war. The actual behavior of the American government in its relations / negotiations with North Vietnam in its use of the MIA issue also helped to prepare the American public for the idea that many if not most of the MIA were in fact secret prisoners of the North Vietnamese. The social results have been corrosive.

1. Franklin, H. Bruce, MIA: or Mythmaking in America, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick NJ, 1993, pp. 11-14, MIA Facts Site, Here and Here.

2. IBID.

3. MIA Facts Site, Here.


5. Franklin, pp. 39-126.

6. MIA Facts Site, Here and Here.

7. The movie Rambo II claims it was because the USA had reneged on giving aid. Kiss the Boys Goodbye, claimed it was because the USA was still waging war after a fashion against the Vietnamese. See Jensen-Stevenson, Monika, & Stevenson, William, Kiss the Boys Goodbye, E. P. Dutton, New York, 1990.

8. Franklin, pp. 194-197.

9. Franklin, pp. 127-164.

10. Rambo first Blood II Wikipedia  Here.

11. Rambo II. I’m relying on memory.

12. Relying on my memory.

Pierre Cloutier 

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